by | Oct 24, 2022

ThinkFirst program aims to prevent traffic injuries through education program

The mercury was hitting the mid-90s that hot July day. It was the summer of 2015 and Milan native Skyler Gray, along with two friends, decided to cool off by taking a dip in a nearby lake. If only they had known how the choices they would make that day would forever change their lives.

The young adults chose to drink while swimming, and afterward, decided to continue partying. Skyler barely got into the truck’s passenger seat when the driver sped off. The vehicle raced down the gravel road, flying past the apparently invisible stop sign, then drifted sideways onto the highway at race car speed. The trio was only headed 2 miles down the road and none of them buckled their seatbelts.

Suddenly the driver was headed into a curve — a curve he would never be able to make. End over end the truck and passengers tumbled before coming to a glass-shattering rest. They had only made it a quarter of a mile from the lake before the crash occurred.

“I was thrown through the windshield,” Skyler recalls being told. “I was taken to the local hospital, only to be flown via Life Flight to a hospital in Des Moines, Iowa.”

Once at the hospital, Skyler’s heart stopped. It took two shots of epinephrine and three minutes of CPR to resuscitate the 20-year-old so they could continue to assess her other injuries.

“I broke my neck in two places and was instantly paralyzed from the shoulders down,” Skyler says. “I had the first of 10 surgeries on my neck that night.” She would spend the next 2 1/2 weeks in intensive care as well as a step-down unit before being transferred to Rusk Rehabilitation Hospital in Columbia for continued surgeries and rehab.

Today, two titanium rods, a metal plate and 12 screws hold Skyler’s head and neck in place.

Thousands of hours of rehab helped the now 28-year-old quadriplegic recover to a point where she can move most of her body.

“Never take a single thing for granted because you never know when it could all be taken away,” adds Skyler.

While early in recovery at the rehabilitation hospital, Skyler heard Penny Lorenz speak to a spinal cord injury group. Penny was part of a group called ThinkFirst, an award-winning trauma prevention program sponsored by the University of Missouri School of Medicine, the Missouri Department of Transportation and Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

“My story isn’t a lot different than many of you,” Penny tells a group of traffic offenders recently during a daylong, court-ordered workshop held by ThinkFirst. She, too, says she chose not to wear a seat belt while riding with a friend who drove at an excessive speed. Paralyzed from the waist down in the crash more than 30 years ago, Penny was told she had only a 10% chance of ever walking again.

A few years after the crash, Penny got involved with ThinkFirst, eventually serving as the program’s assistant director. The program’s goal is to educate people, especially high-risk young people, about their vulnerability to brain and spinal cord injuries and how to prevent them. Through first-hand testimonies of survivors, ThinkFirst teaches no one is immune to these injuries.

“This educational program is broken into three segments: speakers who have survived their own horrible accidents — some caused by their own decisions and some the victims of others,” says Cpl. Kyle Green, public information and education officer with the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Troop F in Jefferson City.

The officer goes on to say the second stage of ThinkFirst’s program brings in medical staff from the University Hospital in Columbia to speak about the long road to recovery as well as the mental, physical and financial toll these injuries take on the entire family. Finally, the patrolman comes in to discuss with the group how making poor decisions can change lives forever.

“I try to help change the mindset of ‘it won’t happen to me,’ ” Kyle says. “That mindset is why we continue to have approximately 40,000 traffic fatalities each year in the United States. I consider ThinkFirst a powerful intervention for difficult to reach traffic offenders.”

ThinkFirst presentations are available at no cost to schools, businesses and community groups statewide. And today, as a successful University of Missouri student, Skyler Gray is part of ThinkFirst’s ambassador team, reaching out to help save lives through education and prevention.

“I met Penny when I was very newly injured,” recalls Skyler. “She says when she met me at the hospital, she knew I would be a perfect speaker for ThinkFirst.

“Life isn’t about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what you have,” Skyler adds. “It’s a miracle I’m alive, and I’m glad to share my story if it helps save a life.”

To learn more about the ThinkFirst program or to inquire about booking a speaker for your group, call 573-882-1176 or go to ThinkFirst currently has partner chapters located in Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin but the speakers travel statewide.

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